Rights advocates side with Russian Baptists


Baptists are upset by punishment for a religious ritual

by Kirill Antonov, Alexander Chernykh

Kommersant, 2 December 2018


In an open letter, the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists accused the Tatarstan police of "intimidating" believers. Earlier a court in Naberezhnye Chelny fined the evangelicals' pastor for conducting a baptism in the Kama River; the place was deserted, but police considered the religious ritual was an unsanctioned rally. Rights advocates are sure that the court's decision "will be overturned in the ECHR."


The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists published an open letter with an assessment of the case of the pastor of the "Regeneration" church, Leonid Povorov. The clergyman, with a group of believers, on 29 July 2018 "in a deserted spot conducted a ritual of baptism in the Kama River." Later the police accused him of "organizing a public event without giving notice to agencies of the government." The Baptists note that on 22 November, Leonid Povorov "was arrested and held in custody" and on the next day "he was led in handcuffs into the courtroom," although the pastor "had not received a summons to court."


Mr. Povorov described for the court that he heads the local "Regeneration" church. In the summer he organized an "outing in nature with parishioners." The believers drank tea and conducted a ritual of baptism. At the same time, the pastor emphasized that members of the church "selected an out-of-the-way place," and the event itself was "not public," and there were no outsiders. There were no banners with slogans and evangelistic activity was not conducted, he assured. The defense attorney of the pastor maintained that "the event had a corporate character and no clearance with agencies of the government was required in connection with this."


The court concluded that participants in the meeting "expressed publicly their opinion regarding religious teaching," and their "actions created a danger for public order."


"An open demonstration of religious convictions may irritate or offend those who profess a different religion or do not profess any religion, and consequently this created the potential danger of causing harm to the moral and physical health of citizens."


The court also pointed out that "conduct of a religious ritual in conditions of an open body of water, without persons responsible for safety of people, could create a threat to the life and health of its participants." In the end that pastor was fined 20,000 rubles on the basis of part 2 of article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law of the RF—usually this article is applied to organizers of unsanctioned oppositional rallies. Mr. Povorov intends to appeal the court's decision.


"The ritual of baptism cannot be considered a public event and the use of special devices—handcuffs—is permitted in instances strictly defined by law which do not apply to the pastor's actions," the statement from the Union of Baptists says. The union thinks that the actions of law enforcement agencies "cause offense to all believers," and it regards them as "infringement on the constitutional rights and liberties of believers."


"A trip to a river cannot be considered a rally. Moreover its participants did not use banners and did not chant slogans," agrees the director of the Sova Center for News and Analysis, Alexander Verkhovsky. "Of course, if they had walked in a procession then this would require permission as a parade. But in this case, there was no public event."


"This decision of the court will be 100 percent overturned in the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights], and by a very rapid proceeding," Pavel Chikov, a member of the Council for Human Rights and chairman of the international rights advocacy group "Agora," is certain. "Of course, there is no 'unsanctioned public event' here." He recalled that since 2016, within the framework of the so-called Yarovaya Package, the law forbids conducting missionary activity beyond the boundaries of religious institutions. "It is even strange that the 'rally' article was applied to the pastor and not this prohibition," he says. "Apparently the police and court found it easier to act in their habitual way. It is for this reason that the case seems to be without basis."


"This may be a part of a federal trend: throughout the country Christians who are not from the Russian Orthodox Church are being subjected to repression," Mr. Chikov says. "Some to a greater degree, like the Jehovah's Witnesses who are held to be extremists, and some to a lesser degree, like Lutherans or evangelicals."


He recalled how back in 2014 a protestant pastor from Sochi, Andrei Koliasnikov, was fined for discussing the Bible with fellow believers in a café. "The very same article of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law was applied to him. The situation in Tatarstan is a confirmation of the trend," Mr. Chikov thinks.


Representatives of the synodal Department for Relations with Society and News Media of the RPTs told Kommersant that they do not comment on what happens with other religious confessions. (tr. by PDS, posted 4 December 2018)

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